LAST CHRISTMAS Day, the United States was just three minutes away from another tragedy of unmitigated horror. Once again, terrorists breached our security and nearly succeeded in turning yet one more passenger aircraft into an instrument of death and destruction. Had it not been for the malfunctioning of a cleverly disguised and detonated explosive device concealed in the bomber's underwear, and the alert passengers and flight crew who subdued him, America would have fallen victim to the worst terrorist attack since September 11, 2001.
The bomber, a twenty-three-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, had recently graduated from University College London-one of the UK's most prestigious schools. He defied the conventional wisdom about the stereotypical suicide terrorist being poor, uneducated and provincial. Not only did he hold a degree, he was cosmopolitan-having lived abroad, Abdulmutallab was at ease traversing the globe without arousing suspicion-and he was the son of a wealthy banker and former Nigerian government official. Abdulmutallab was radicalized, recruited, trained and deployed in remarkably quick succession-a rapidity that was also unexpected and thus surprised counterterrorism experts.
How and why he joined al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) remains a mystery. However, suspicions have continually focused on the role played by an American-born Muslim cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki who fled to Yemen some years ago.